Here at Dawnbreaker Press we take editing pretty seriously (or so we're told), but we would be remiss if we didn't give a shout out to one of the profession's finest: Steve Dunham, author of The Editor's Companion. Steve's book is an indispensable resource for editors in any field - us included! - so we asked him to come on to chat about his work and career as an editor.
Q&A with Steve Dunham
Interview conducted by press editor Chandler in the summer of 2019
Q: Hey, Steve! Thanks for taking the time to talk today. As I mentioned before, your book was such a hit around here that it's now staple reading for our whole editorial team. Since we’re going to be talking a lot about editing today, why don’t you start by letting our readers know a bit about your background as an editor and how that ties into your book and its message.
A: I really appreciate your interest in - and compliments about - The Editor’s Companion. I hoped it would be helpful and fun for other editors. Currently I’m an editor at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia. Before that I spent 19 years as an editor at a government contractor in northern Virginia, and before that I worked for a couple of book publishers, for nonprofits, and at numerous temporary and freelance assignments. My first editing job was at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Sometimes I’ve been the only editor; at other jobs I’ve been fortunate to be part of a team. Although I have relied heavily on guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Style Book and Libel Manual, and Words into Type, I often was on my own in learning how to be an editor. As I gained experience, I tried to help other editors, and I taught short classes in copy editing and quality control. I also collected clippings, especially funny ones, to use in class. Eventually I managed to organize a lot of it into a book, and then it had to be edited, revised, and expanded until the publisher was happy with it. That came as a surprise. I thought I’d produced a perfect manuscript, but when the publisher was done with it, it was much better.
Q: As a seasoned editor you know better than anyone that the reality of book publishing and editorial work is not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be. However, while editing is a time-consuming process, I think we both agree that it’s one of the most important (the most, I would contend) step in publishing—and also the reason why I spend the majority of my time in my office rather than taking “business trips” to Manhattan. Woe is me for sure, but could you share some insight and thoughts on why editing is so important to the success of any publication?
A: Editors are so important because we’re the link between the writer and the reader. Writers make mistakes, they sometimes are unclear, they sometimes produce information that is incomplete—and editors can usually spot the problems and know how to fix them. The problems can frustrate readers or cause them to lose trust in the writing, or the readers might not even know what’s wrong, just that the writing doesn’t give them what they want. Editors help writers provide material that is clear, complete, and useful or entertaining. We point out errors and areas for improvement. The late Evan Morris, writing as the Word Detective, commented that people doing a job hate to hear “You missed a spot.” And that’s kind of what editors are always saying to writers.
Q: Since you’ve worked as an editor across multiple industries and fields, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions regarding how the editing process and mission translates to a team environment. First, could you share how that process and workflow differs between smaller and bigger firms? I think it goes without saying that the editorial operation of a small press like ours differs in some ways from that of the big five—one example being the fluidity in editorial roles that get taken on by editors at small firms which might not happen at a larger corporation. Of course, being a larger operation has its own benefits and trade-offs—I’ll let you share your own experience in this regard.
A: The biggest difference I’ve seen is that in smaller outfits, the editor tends to be more directly involved in everything: selecting manuscripts, graphics, contracts, marketing, printing, author relations, accounting, and—oh, yes—editing. At one book publisher, I was executive editor, which also meant managing the 13 staff members in the American publishing branch (the owner was in the United Kingdom). At another, family-owned company I was editor and publisher and the only full-time employee. These jobs were challenging and rewarding. At larger organizations such as Bell Laboratories and the National Guard Bureau, the editing work is much more compartmentalized: editors mostly work on whatever is assigned to them and sometimes don’t even see the final product. But being in a bigger organization usually means not only having other editors working alongside you but also working closely with people who have different skills: graphic designers, for example. At the National Guard Bureau, we’re also fortunate that a lot of the people we work with are in the National Guard, and many of them are at headquarters for only a year or two before going back to their states or to an Army or Air Force assignment somewhere else. They can explain things to us, and they give us the perspective of Guard members out in the states who might not be eagerly awaiting the next memo from headquarters. We work to make every publication clear, simple, and, if possible, short. I’m continually learning from other people, and having other editors to work with not only improves quality (we’re continually disappointed by how much we miss but relieved that another editor spotted it) but also helps us solve problems together, maybe converting a list into a table or moving text to an appendix.
Q: Along the same line of thought, how does the process and mission then translate between industries? That is, you mention in your book that the editor’s objective is to facilitate clear, effective communication between the writer and the reader—but the devil being in the details, how does the process for achieving that objective differ between say, an editorial team at a book publisher versus a technical writing department at a corporation or government agency?
A: Copy editing and substantive editing in book publishing tend to be less detailed. Fiction may get minor editing if it gets edited at all. Nonfiction books typically require some degree of fact checking and sometimes get sent to an outside expert for a manuscript review. Editors often know a little about a lot—that is, we tend to have shallow knowledge in many fields. I know, for example, that Canada is not overseas from the United States and that Antarctica is not a country—two errors I spotted in government reports at a previous job. I know a lot about maritime history and railroading, and I know quite a lot about transportation security. I could confidently edit writing in those subjects, though I would still have to look up a lot of things. However, my knowing where Canada is and Antarctica’s political status don’t make me an expert in geography—I sometimes have to look up country names to see which continent the countries are on. When I taught editing, I would tell aspiring editors to look up anything they doubt and to doubt everything. In other words, verify anything you can.
Copy editing is pretty much the same in all genres, in my experience. The same rules of English and organization apply, although writers of fiction get a little more slack if they are clearly competent writers. Having a team gives you people with different strengths and weaknesses, and even editing likes and dislikes. Some editors hate checking bibliographies; others would happily do it all day.
Technical editing applies equally to books and to government or corporate reports. It involves checking everything: the statements, the math (I can’t always check the math myself), graphs, pie charts, tables. When editing a computer manual, you have to test every instruction in the manual to see whether it’s accurate. The “issuances,” as the National Guard calls its instructions, manuals, and notices, typically don’t have a huge level of detail to verify, but we still check names, phone numbers, and report dates, titles, and numbers, along with anything else we can.
Q: I think it’s safe to say that self-publishing has become ubiquitous in the industry—it’s now easier than ever to publish a book using any number of DIY methods, and for a small percentage of savvy authors this has been a successful venture. Some in the industry have even correlated the rise of self-publishing to the demise of professional publishing; however, the thesis I’ve formed as of late (based on my own observations and research, mind you) is that reader expectations have actually increased over the past decade due to the massive upsurge in subpar-quality, self-published books on the market, and because of this I’m constantly impressing upon writers to seek professional editing for their work. In short, it seems that print is losing its sacred status as readers become more suspicious of the books they read, and published books without professional editing run a high risk of alienating their readership and damaging the credibility of the author. While I don’t want to come across as knocking self-publishing, I wanted to get some of your thoughts on the topic.
A: Yes, it’s easier than ever to publish your own work without a lot of expense and, if it grabs attention, to reach a widespread audience. For some kinds of writing, this may be the best way to publish, especially if your goal is to share your writing with people and not necessarily to make money from it. A writer will have a hard time finding a publisher to invest money in publishing poetry, for example, or even a first novel. Publishing your own work may be the way to go in many cases. However, just as you can, if things go well, quickly gain a wide readership, you can also quickly lose readers. If they click on your link and your writing doesn’t hook them right away, you can expect to them to instantly leave your web page for something else.
It’s not just the opening that has to be good. You can lose online readers at any point. Even if you’ve managed to sell them an e-book or a printed book, if you lose them part way through, you’re not going to get the crucial word-of-mouth endorsements that will reach other readers. Getting your work edited won’t guarantee success; it doesn’t guarantee success in any area of publishing. But it does eliminate the risk of losing readers through lack of credibility or just poor writing. Even an experienced writer and editor (I’m thinking of myself) makes mistakes; sometimes the mistakes even get past other editors. There’s an online service (I’ve forgotten the name) where you can get something edited for five dollars. Kind of like Five Below for publishing, except I’m sure you’ll get better value at Five Below, though the store doesn’t offer editing. If at all possible, self-published writers should pay for editing if they can afford it and at least use Grammarly and get a knowledgeable friend to review the writing. A local writers’ group, which many libraries have, will do this for you too.
Q: While not as pertinent to writers, software is a current hot topic for editors and publishers in the book biz. Rather counter-intuitively, the array of software available to editors and publishers today is far more limited (though much more technologically advanced and powerful) than it was in the past—a good example of this is the omnipresence of Adobe and Office software products in any publisher’s house. While many rejoice at the increased standardization of digital software and files that has arisen because of this, others are voicing their concerns about the negative side effects of a limited set of software and tools available to publishing professionals. What has your experience been like with software and tech throughout your career?
A: As best I can remember, at Bell Laboratories I didn’t use a computer. The artists produced graphics using ginormous consoles with small screens. All the editing was on paper. We still had typewriters. “Yeah, yeah,” I can hear the young people saying. “Are you sure they didn’t draw pictures on cave walls?” Well, maybe they did. I don’t remember. I was only a little kid when we lived in caves. At the first book publisher where I worked, we had one computer, which helped enormously with mailing lists and creating plain-text files for the typesetter. Then we got one of the first versions of PageMaker, which I guess was the original page-layout program. OK, this is turning into a “living history” interview, so let me breeze through the next few decades. I’ve been working with Microsoft Word for almost 30 years, probably about as long as it’s been around. For writing, editing, layout, and graphics, the computer programs have multiplied productivity immensely. But they don’t multiply quality. You still have to pay attention to detail and learn how to professionally use each program. Microsoft Word, for example, has a default setting for the spellchecker to ignore words in all caps. If I had a dollar for every headline I’ve corrected with a typo in all caps, I could travel to Galveston and take you all out to lunch. Sadly, a lot of people don’t take advantage of the free training that’s available; there are good online tutorials for Word, InDesign, and many other programs, but for many people and their managers, it doesn’t seem to be a priority.
Q: That being said, do you find the advancements in software and tech to be more of a help or a hindrance to your work? I would argue that technology is an overall convenience and plus, but we also know that even small tech hiccups can easily disrupt entire projects: new software versions cause older files to be incompatible; importing and exporting between programs can lead to loss of digital quality; inaccessibility of cloud software due to connectivity issues; lack of support for software on other operating systems… the list goes on. Care to share your own stories of tech catastrophes?
A: Sometimes products get better. At one job I was doing a lot of web work, and I and the other editors were writing our own HTML code, and we liked doing it (HTML, unlike, say, Microsoft Word, gives you what you tell it to give you and doesn’t second-guess you). When InDesign came out, we thought it would help us with our web work. However, the company wouldn’t buy it for us. A year or two later, there was a computer upgrade and all of us in the publications group, to our surprise got InDesign overnight. It turned out that the early version we received wouldn’t create hyperlinks, so it wasn’t that much help. Later versions were much better.
One problem with upgrades is that they can make the programs harder to use for people experienced with the software. Acrobat, for example, got completely different menus a few years ago, and suddenly some of us who had been using it for ten years or more couldn’t figure out how to do things that used to be routine. The notorious Word 2016 “upgrade” couldn’t produce superscripts until the bug was fixed. And in a group environment, any software change coming from the computer department will wipe out my custom dictionaries and macros in Microsoft Word. And Photoshop! Instead of leaving well enough alone, somebody changed the menus to something with low contrast, gray and black I think it was. And then there’s Windows 10 with its combination of light gray and white. And recent versions of Internet Explorer not recognizing alt text. Haven’t these people heard of section 508 (of the Rehabilitation Act) compliance? I recommend the accessibility standards for anyone producing online documents even if it’s not government work. Hey, that turned into a real rant. Thanks for the chance to vent!
Q: Because Dawnbreaker Press is a small indie publisher, we have the flexibility and freedom to avoid the usual corporate bureaucracy and policies that bog down any operation. However, we do have one important policy in place called EAT: Edit All the Things. Everything gets edited; even this interview transcript is going to have at least two sets of editorial eyes go through it before it gets published.
Writers sometimes feel threatened or even insulted when edits or revisions are suggested for their work. I think this sentiment arises from our innate human nature and insecurities; that is, to admit that our work needs editing or revision is in a way an admission of shortcoming and weakness, so our instinct is to resist and call the editor bad names and draw pictures of them as a donkey (or a dog in my case).
Perhaps we can help dispel this stigma by impressing upon readers the applicability of editing to everyone, including an editor at an indie publishing house and a seasoned editor and author like yourself. I for one have found my own editing work and writing improve tremendously by being open to suggestions by my staff and embracing the editorial process as an opportunity to grow and improve. What about the One and Only Steve Dunham (OOSD)?
A: “One and only”? If only! My literary agent and friend Dave Fessenden complained that when he Googled “Steve Dunham,” all the results were about a dead actor. Well, the IOOOSD (if only the one and only Steve Dunham) makes mistakes all the time. I miss errors when editing, I say things and they come out wrong, and I make mistakes in writing. Sometimes writers are convinced that their work is beyond improvement (unlikely), or maybe they fear that improvement will hurt (it might). When I worked on the college newspaper, the editor-in-chief told us young ’uns that it’s important to get over the excitement of seeing your name in print. If you identify so much with your work that you’re afraid people might not like it and therefore might not like you, you’re likely to resist letting other people help you improve it. No matter how much I know, there’s somebody else who knows more about something, and I’ve learned to listen to them. However, sometimes people giving advice can be curt. I used to be. Nowadays I try to be polite and not hurt writers’ feelings. I try to point to a problem in what you wrote, not describe it as something you did wrong.
Q: We’ve touched on a handful of editing topics today, so I want to close out by letting you talk about your book and how it ties into our discussion here and the editing profession in general.
A: Back in 1996, I was on the faculty at a writers’ conference, and one of the other editors suggested that together he and I should write a book about editing. So after the conference, I came up with an outline and marked the parts I thought I could write. He agreed, and I wrote my half but he didn’t write anything. It sat unfinished for about 16 years, at which point I felt that I had learned enough that I could finish the book myself. I did, and my friend Dave, who is also a writer and editor, asked whether he could be my agent. I hadn’t known that he was a literary agent too, and I said yes, and he found a publisher: Writers Digest Books. As I was finishing the book on my own, I wanted it to be a friendly, helpful guide to the principles of editing. I hope it’s useful to journalism students, novice editors, and those who have editing thrust upon them—volunteers editing organizations’ newsletters and websites, or people whose employers have assigned them editing responsibility because they are good with English—as well as lone editors in an alligator pond of co-workers and bosses who have their own ideas about how to punctuate and capitalize things. Guess what? I’ve been in most of those situations myself.
I should credit someone whose name I’ve forgotten but whose advice I took back in the late 1980s. It was at a writers’ conference at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, and it was the first time I gave a short class about editing. Afterwards one of the guys who had sat through it said I should add humor, so ever since I’ve tried to make my teaching, my blog, and my book not just informative but also funny and entertaining.
One of the good things about being on a team is that you can share the fun. Years ago I was alone in the office on a Saturday, and I came across a reference to personnel rooster policies. I was laughing out loud and badly wanted to share it, so I emailed all my colleagues. The next time one of my co-workers came into the office and said, “Steve! Wake up!” I asked him, “Are you the personnel rooster I was reading about?” (In case you haven’t guessed, rooster was supposed to be roster.) My book and blog are ways I try to help others and share the fun.
Q: And lastly, it wouldn’t be a proper author interview if I didn’t extort you for details on any upcoming books. All “you heard it first here” announcements welcome.
A: Well, The Editor’s Companion took 16 years from inception till completion, and I started college in 1973 and got a diploma in 1988, so in 15 years or so when I’m sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of the Old Editors’ Home, maybe I’ll have something new for you. Actually, for the past six years or so I have mainly written screenplays. None has been made into a movie yet, but I’m hopeful that all three will get made into movies, and I hope to write more. Anyone interested in reading my screenplays can find them on my website, www.stevedunham.50megs.com.
I studied communications and journalism at Glassboro State College (which much later became Rowan University after somebody named Rowan gave it a bazillion dollars). I and my parents ran out of money, and anyway the degree requirements kept changing, so I didn’t finish. I kept writing, though, and after a few years managed to sell some articles. Despite not having a diploma, after some years I got into editing professionally, initially as a contractor at Bell Laboratories, which in those days put less emphasis on diplomas because it had some certifiable geniuses without diplomas (I wasn’t one of them). I worked at a couple of book publishers and nonprofits, living in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and finally Virginia, where I still reside. For about ten years, I and other commuters alternated writing the “Commuter Crossroads” column for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, newspaper. That was a lot of fun. I also wrote a humor column, “Off the Deep End,” for Commuter Weekly, which was distributed on commuter trains in Virginia and Maryland. That was even more fun. My longest job was for a government contractor in Virginia that laid off a lot of people two years ago. Then I got a job as a contractor at the National Guard Bureau, where I work with a lot of good people. Around the same time I started that job, I became a volunteer chaplain at Alexandria Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, and I’m there almost every Saturday, and as extra volunteer duty I’ve been editing the chaplains’ handbook. One day at the National Guard Bureau, an officer walked in and was chatting with me. I said that by the insignia on his uniform, I could tell he was a chaplain, and I said I was a volunteer hospital chaplain. He asked what I did at the National Guard Bureau, and I told him that I edit memo, instructions, manuals, notices … “How do you keep your sanity?” he asked. I replied that on Saturdays I’m a volunteer chaplain, and that helps keep me sane.
On the family side of things, my late wife was a competent writer with several pieces published, and all the kids have writing ability too. My son John runs the Writing Center at Antioch University in New Hampshire, and my son James has a master’s degree in writing and had a science fiction novel, The Helena Orbit, published.
That about sums up 65 years of craziness!